Sam Dunn: A year of misbehaving by our financial masters

Worst was the Government's refusal to help workers with failed pensions
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The Independent Online

You can expect, over the next two weeks, to come across countless TV shows bringing us the best of 2006.

Sadly, one thing you won't see - amid the retrospectives on sport, music, reality TV etc - is a countdown of this year's best and worst personal finance incidents.

If The Independent on Sunday's Money postbag has been anything to go by, there's a very willing audience out there keen to pick over those lenders, politicians and finance groups in the public eye for their bad behaviour.

Consumers, and their personal finances, have grabbed a lot more attention this year. Millions have struggled with overindebtedness, a rise in bankruptcies and a failure to save for their pensions, while the British obsession with house prices continued unabated.

Given the importance of consumer confidence in the value of their homes - and its impact on spending throughout the economy - the Bank of England's monthly decision on interest rates has taken on a higher profile than ever before. It is regularly pored over and commented upon by phalanxes of economists, consumer groups, debt charities, City analysts and politicians.

Away from these everyday money concerns, there have been plenty of big incidents to shake public confidence in those who provide the fabric of our finances. In particular, the recent collapse of the Farepak Christmas hamper company has left thousands of hard-working families and savers out of pocket.

A lack of regulation of the savings club sector exposed poor corporate practice and punished those who chose to be prudent rather than splurge out on their credit cards.

Most heinous, though, was the Government's refusal earlier this year to pay any compensation to nearly 125,000 workers who lost all or part of their final salary retirement fund when their companies went to the wall.

Despite a damning verdict of maladministration by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, a call for compensation by a select committee, and an imminent High Court showdown, the Department for Work and Pensions has refused to take responsibility for clear government mistakes. This debacle did more to damage trust in those who look after our money than anything else in 2006.

With an undisputed villain of the year, it's only fair to turn to the heroes: those consumers who took on their banks over unfair penalty charges.

What began as a steady trickle in early 2006 has, with encouragement from activist websites like bankchargeshell.co.uk and consumer bodies such as Which?, turned into a steady flow of hardy protesters prepared to take their bank all the way to court. Many have won at the very last minute as banks have backed down, fearful of an expensive - possibly ground- breaking - legal ruling.

A decision by the Office of Fair Trading to order credit card penalties to be halved to £12 has invigorated their campaign to punish avaricious lenders that can levy fees of up to £38 for a £1 overdraft breach.

I wish them, and all readers, the best of luck in 2006.

s.dunn@independent.co.uk

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